King Abdullah’s decision this week to give Saudi Arabia’s women the right to vote and run as candidates was heralded by many as an important breakthrough. And it is – as much as it can be in a country that is much more of a monarchy than a democracy.
But yesterday’s sentencing of a woman who dared to drive, defying the kingdom’s strict interpretation of Islam that frowns on women behind the wheel, serves as a reminder of how far the kingdom has yet to go to reach gender equality.
While the oil-rich US ally has so far been able to keep a lid on dissent with generous social programs, it sits in the middle of a region being swept by a people-power movement that’s unwilling to trade freedom for stability and comfort.
As Iran is finding, it’s precarious to be a repressive nation – however strong – amid the Arab Spring. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Saudi Arabia is inching toward reform.
There will be municipal elections tomorrow – one of only two votes since 1963, CNN reports. However, the changes announced Sunday that will allow women to vote, run as candidates, and nominate candidates will not be in effect in time for this election.
Also, the 2010 US State Department report on human rights around the world, released in April of this year, hailed improved efforts to tackle domestic violence against women and children, calling it a “significant human rights achievement.”
The guardianship system
The guardianship system, which Ms. Murphy says “stems from tribal traditions and is deeply entrenched in Saudi Arabia’s culture and legal system” requires women to get men’s permission for marriage, work, study, and travel and can involve control of women’s finances. A 2008 report by Human Rights Watch called it "the most significant impediment to the realization of women's rights in the kingdom."
"If we complain against our fathers, the first thing that will happen is they will imprison us, not let us go to our occupation, and they may hit us," says a female professor interviewed by Murphy.
"I am like a horse" to my male relatives, added the professor. "They don't treat me as a human being. They treat me as if I belong to them, and they should decide what to do with this thing."
Other challenges Saudi women face
-- "By law a female rape victim is at fault for illegal 'mixing of genders' and is punished along with the perpetrator."
-- "The guardianship system requires that every woman have a close male relative as her 'guardian' with the authority to approve her travel."
-- "Women risk arrest for riding in a vehicle driven by a male who is not an employee or a close male relative."
-- "Women also faced discrimination in courts, where the testimony of one man equals that of two women."
-- "The law requires a woman to obtain the permission of a male guardian to work if the type of business is not 'deemed appropriate for a woman.'"
So while it’s good news for human rights advocates that King Abdullah is willing to let women cast their ballots, much work remains to give women – and all Saudis – greater rights in the land where Islam first began.